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Look back to Lecture 4, where we first encountered these ideas about implications and evolution. I noted there something from Plotkin, viz 'Biological forms are structures which give an explicit rendition of the implications of an organism's situation into meat and vegetable organizations. Plotkin xiv has put this point thus: adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of 'incorporation' of the world into the structure and organization of living things Just as a leg is a physical structure that has been selected so as to make explicit in a physical medium the demands [implications] of its environment, so likewise an an animal's perceptions and experiences are structured, but this time not in a physical medium, but in a sensory one.

Let's pursue this further.

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Mead, as I noted, also raised the question [previous lecture] as to how perspectives appear in experience: The first question that suggests itself with reference to the perspective is how does it appear as such in experience? Given that experiences have evolved as ways of instantiating perspectives, what are they like?

This is perhaps, at first sight, a question you might laugh at. How could we ever know what another animal's experiences might be like? This is a seemingly impossible empirical exercise.


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OK: figuring out how another species might actually experience the world is not something that can be done with any certainty and then some. But we can, I suggest, at least establish some of the parameters within which different experienced perspectives are constructed. This is just basic psychophysics: if an organism can be shown to be unable to detect certain potential environmental information, then we can confident that a its behaviour will not take such potential information into account, nor b , assuming it converts environmental information into a world it experiences and responds to, then that information will not be translated into its experiential world.

In his paper, von Uexkull explored the view that simple animals live in simple worlds, and complex animals live in complex ones. In his 'stroll', he walks us through 'a flower-strewn meadow, humming with insects, fluttering with butterflies' and invites the reader to ' first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows.

When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed.

Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we may call the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal' von Uexkill , 5. Von Uexkull uses the term 'Umwelt' to refer to these relative lived-in worlds. He presents them as in the following pictures of a meadow as we might see it and then, below, as it might appear to a bee.

The top figure here from von Uexkull, represents the environment of a bee. The lower figure represents the Umwelt of the same bee, that is, the world as it appears to the bee via the structure of the bee's perceptual system. The notion is that organisms are built to perceive objects that are meaningful for them.

It is conjectural, yes, but based on a thorough delineation of the perceptual cues bees respond to. Bees land on figures that exhibit broken forms, such as stars and crosses, and avoid compact forms, such as circles and squares. The figure, which was designed on this basis, contrasts a bee's environment with its Umwelt.

The bee is seen in its environment, a blooming field, in which blossoming flowers alternate with buds. If we put ourselves in the bee's place and look at the field from the point of view of its Umwelt, the blossoms are changed to stars or crosses according to their form, and the buds assume the unbroken shape of circles.

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The biological significance of this newly discovered quality in bees is evident. Only blossoming flowers have a meaning for them; buds do not , emphasis added. The essential point is that organisms are constructed such that objects have meanings, or significance, for them, constructed by their perspective in Mead's sense op. The meaning of these objects is constituted in the interaction of the organism and the environment, and over evolutionary time the structure and function of the organism's perceptual systems have been fine-tuned to make these meanings salient: animal's perceive what they need to perceive, and experience the world in ways that are useful to them.

Generally, we think of meaning as being something that is stored in an organism, either as the result of evolution or learning. But once we begin to think of cognitive processes, such as perception, as distributed between organism and environment, and once we categorise environments as environments and Umwelts, then there is available a more useful way of dealing with meaning in this sense.

That is, that the meanings of objects are directly perceived because of the organism's perspective on them. And if that perspective changes, so does the meaning, and therefore the perception of the object. It is in this context that von Uexkull makes the important point that the perspectives and possibilities which are available to an organism are not things seen 'from outside of' the evolving system, but are constituted within it in the organism's perception of the environment, in its Umwelt : [The Umwelt] is the world around the animal as the animal sees it, the subjective world as contrasted with the environment.

The effects of stimulation appear in this Umwelt as elementary sensations, [Merkzeichen], which, organised and projected into the object, become meaningful perceptions, conceived by the [animal] as the properties of that object, [Merkmal] von Uexkull, xiii. His point is that animals provide 'value-perspectives' that determine the way in which 'the world' is presented to them.

Sensory systems are not passive transducers of information, but constitutive transducers. Some of these value-perspectives are given to animals as a result of their evolutionary histories; and some may be 'imported' into the constitutive perceptual system by learning.


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  • Either way, the world is presented to an animal as possessing objects that are meaningful to it through the values that arise as a result of its being in a particular relation to its environment. It is in this sense that von Uexkull's Umwelt contains meaningful items: Every action His point is that making sense of its world is not something any organism has to put a lot of work into. Organisms do not neutrally experience the world, and then have to build up massive interpretive skills so as to assign significance and meaning to events: significance in the sense of 'what-to-do-next' is built directly into the way perception is pre-structured; the world is 'presented' to the organism as already containing its 'interests'.

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    If you now go back and look at the two 2-dimensional pictures in the previous lecture, you will now likely 'see' that you still see the objects in them that previously you didn't. This indicates that von Uexkull's point that 'Every action You might recall a quote taken earlier from Dretske , Lecture 13], that where he sees a daisy, his 2 year old sees a flower, and who knows what his dog sees. Certainly, a dog doesn't deal with what it sees as anything interesting. I didn't come to New Zealand seeing a table as something I couldn't sit on. Again, it can be interesting to wander around the tool and hardware sections of a megastore, such as Bunnings or Mitre 10, where you will find all kinds of objects that 'make no sense', that you wouldn't know 'what to do with'.

    LECTURE 16 Jacob von Uexkull Recall here Mead's point in the previous lecture that, as biological beings, organisms have a given perspective on the world, one that contributes a value perspective for them from which implications necessarily follow. This 'value perspective' is based in the foundational constitution of the biological realm: that an energy source is required so as to sustain organisation in the face of entropy.

    Consequently, the implication is that there will be some things that an organism will have more of an interest in than other things in its environment: the sources of energy it requires being prime amongst these.

    A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds

    Hence we get to understand Mead's point that: ' The objects that are there in independence of the organism imply the organism. That is, the organism is not independent of them The process by which the organism has arisen is, however, one in which the organism has determined its field [that is, the world as it perceives it, as it is presented to it in its experience, AL] by its susceptibilities and responses. There is a mutual interdependence of the two. This is expressed in the term "perspective" ' Mead, The point is that the external, objective environment of objects that you see by default has had to be constructed over evolutionary time.

    SYMBIONCE — NearsightGraphite • NsG • Visual Art by Robert J. Long

    Colours are not objective properties of the external world itself that colour receptors have evolved to reveal to us. The ever-constant pulsation keeps the an imal fl oating on the s urface of the ocean. At the same time the stomach distends and contracts alternately, d riving the sea water in and out through fine pores. The liquid content of the stomach is propelled thro ugh labyrinthine digestive canals, whose walls absorb the nouri shment and the accompanying oxygen. Swimming, feeding, and breathing are carried out by the same rhythmic contraction of the muscles on the edge of the umbrella.

    To ensure continuity of this motion, eight bell-shaped organs are located on the periphery of the umbrella represented symbolically in Fig. The stimulus thus produced elicits the next um brel la-beat. I n this way the medusa gives herself her own effector cue, and this releases the same receptor cue, which again elicits the same effector cue ad infinitum. In the med usa's world, the same bell signal rings all the time, and dominates the rhythm of life. All other stimuli are cut off.


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    I n the case of a single functional cycle, as in Rhizostorna, we can speak of a reflex animal, for the same reflex runs all the time from each bel l to the m uscular band at the umbrella's edge. Moreover, the term may even be extended to animals with several reflex arcs, s uch as other med usae, so long as these reflex arcs remain mutually independent. Thus t here a re med usae which have tentacles with self-contained reflex arcs.

    Moreover, many medusae have a mobile mouth manubrium with a muscular system of its own, which is connected to the receptors on the umbrella's edge. All these reflex arcs operate quite i ndependently and are not di rected by a central orga n. An ex ternal organ t h a t contains a complete reflex arc is aptly termed a reflex person.

    Sea urchins possess a la rge number of s uch reflex persons, each of which performs its own reflex function by itself, without central contro l. To illustrate the contrast between animals built in this way and higher animals. I h ave coined the ph rase: when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal. Sea urchins, like porcupines. Besides the hard, poin ted spines, which are attached to the lime shell by means of a ball bearing and are able to turn a forest of spears against any stimulus emi tting object that approaches the s k i n , there are delicate.

    Furthermore, certain sea urchins have four kinds. Although some of these reflex persons act in unison, they work quite independently of each other. Thus in response to one and the same c hemical stimulus emitted by the sea urchin's enemy, the starfish, the spines part, the poison fangs spring forth in their stead and bury them sel ves in the enemy's suction feet. We may therefore refer to a reflex republic in which, despite the utter independence of each reflex person, absolute domestic peace reigns. For the tender tube-feet are never a ttacked by the sharp snapping fangs, which normally seize every approaching object.

    This peace i s not dictated by a central organizati on, as in our case, where our sharp teeth a re a con stan t danger to the tongue, avoided only by the appearance of the receptor signal o f pain in the central organ.